Who Will Win The Battle Of The L.A. River — The Naturalists or the Urbanists?


Lewis MacAdams is 70, though he looks a bit older. He dresses like a pauper. His right hand trembles, and he walks in sort of a tentative shuffle, head down — rather dour body language for someone known to all as a dreamer. People used to tell him that the Los Angeles River, that concrete-encased estuary that MacAdams has been trying to get Angelenos to care about for nearly 30 years, needed only one thing: a celebrity. Now, it seems, it's him.

A woman biking by sees him and stops. She smiles, but he doesn't seem to recognize her.

"I'm Marianne," she says.

"I know," he replies, unconvincingly.

"Congratulations on the, um..." she says, "getting the money for the uh..." she trails off.

"Wellllll ..." he says, "we don't exactly have the money. We have the direction. But it's still $1.35 billion."

Lots of people have been congratulating MacAdams lately, mostly about the Army Corps of Engineers' approval in July of a $1.35 billion plan to restore habitat along an 11-mile stretch of the river, between downtown and Griffith Park. He seems almost embarrassed by the accolades.

"We don't have as much success as it looks like," he says. "But that's part of the job, to let people imagine what things could be. People are always saying, 'The river's looking so great lately.' But the river hasn't really changed much. It's people's attitudes about the river that have changed."

MacAdams has worn many hats throughout his life — poet, filmmaker, journalist, performance artist, teacher, elected official and, now, L.A. River evangelist. He founded Friends of the L.A. River in 1986, long before most Angelenos even realized there was a river. To call his three-decade ambition wishful thinking would be generous. It was a mad, quixotic fever dream.

But, improbably, MacAdams stuck to his task, and his vision of a naturalized river is spreading. Even the Army Corps of Engineers, which saw to it that the river was paved over half a century ago, has come around.

And then, of course, there's celebrity architect Frank Gehry, who announced last month that he'll be doing ... well, something along the river — much to MacAdams' chagrin.

These days, the river is bursting with possibility. More and more people are looking at the 51-mile concrete trench and seeing instead a 51-mile blank canvas, cutting a swath through the heart of Los Angeles, a chance to provide everything from park space to connectivity to affordable housing to water reclamation. Even the dreamy renderings released by the committee bidding for L.A. to host the Summer Olympics in 2024 included a deep blue river snaking its way through downtown L.A., as if its fate were already assured.

Although the actual work put into revitalization has been nominal — a handful of pocket parks, an intermittent bike path and various other nips and tucks — there is a growing sense that the river is destined to become something truly wonderful.

Standing on a picturesque stretch of riverbank occupied by the Frog Spot — which opened last year as the first commercial establishment to face the river — MacAdams marvels at the throngs of people who've come here to kayak, to entertain their kids, to listen to bands, to drink beer and play bocce ball. "This used to be a flower bed," he says, "but we realized it was a bocce court."

But as river renewal becomes less of a fever dream and more of a reality, tensions are beginning to emerge. Not only is there MacAdams vs. Gehry, there's also the naturalists vs. the urbanists, the kayakers vs. the water conservationists and the smart growthers vs. the anti-gentrifiers.

They can agree on at least one thing: Change along the river is inevitable.

"The rush to the river, on the part of both idealistic builders of public open space and the development community, represents a historic fact," says writer and historian D.J. Waldie. "The entire Los Angeles Basin, from sea to mountains, is built out. There's simply nowhere else to go."

It seems as if everyone has a plan for the river. There's the 1996 L.A. County master plan, the 2007 L.A. City plan and the Army Corps of Engineers plan — sometimes called Alternative 20 — which is waiting on the $1.35 billion of funding it needs, some of which will come from the federal government and some from the city.

Long Beach has a plan, Metro has a plan, the Bureau of Sanitation has a plan, the L.A. Department of Water and Power has a plan.

So when the rumor began to circulate, in the spring, that Frank Gehry would be working on still another plan, longtime river activists were flabbergasted.

"The river is where it is today because of community people on the ground putting their time into it," says Julia Meltzer, the founder and director of Clockshop, an arts organization off the river. "That's why anyone knows there's a river. It doesn't help to have a conversation and for people to feel like they're being left out of it."

There were other worries: If Gehry was indeed working on another master plan, wouldn't that send a signal to Congress to hold off on any funding for Alternative 20? Also, what the hell was Gehry, known for his curvy, metallic buildings and form-before-function design, doing anywhere near a project involving habitat restoration?

Gehry was recruited by Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, a nonprofit created by the city's master plan to help implement it. When its executive director, Omar Brownson, told MacAdams — in confidence — that Gehry had been working for nearly nine months on ... something, MacAdams was disturbed. He quickly dashed off a letter to the River Corporation expressing his concerns, which someone (perhaps MacAdams himself) sent to a reporter at the Los Angeles Times.

"I'm not acknowledging that I actually did that," he says with a wry grin. "But it had to be done. I mean, it's one of those things where people don't think you're serious, and you have to do something serious."

The Times reporters ran with the story, scooping both the River Corporation, which was planning an all-star press conference, and the Times' own architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, who was sitting on an exclusive, embargoed interview with Gehry.

Its carefully plotted media strategy dashed to bits, the River Corporation was forced to scramble, denying that Gehry was working on a new master plan, or anything at all — that he was merely studying the river and looking at it not as a parks project but as a water project.

"You don't get to play with the L.A. River unless you address flood control," Brownson says. "It's the barrier to entry."

Read more at laweekly.com